Thursday, July 3, 2008

Nonprofit governance: How unsexy and irrelevant is that?

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The recent announcement that Theatre de la Jeune Lune will shut down permanently prompted many analyses about what went right as well as wrong during the storied lifetime of a mainstay in the Twin Cities' cultural milieu.

One commentary by David Hawley on ("With Jeune Lune's triumphs over and legacy clear, its wondrous nomads move on," 6/24/08) celebrated both the endings and the beginnings to be found in Jeune Lune's demise. One passage by Hawley caught my eye, and that of several others:

I remember, decades ago, when I was chatting with a Jeune
Lune core member ... who was lamenting about having to deal
with a board of directors in order to gain the benefits of nonprofit status.

"Their job is to get money for us," the performer said. "But they want to
talk to us about what we're doing and all that. It's none of their business
and a terrible waste of time."


There is no need to pile on and credit this sentiment as a fatal flaw in the organizational culture that led to Jeune Lune's demise. The sentiment is alive, healthy, and expressed regularly by artists in all disciplines.

I have heard this sentiment, and worse, from agents of more than one arts organization during the current calendar year alone. You also may have heard the comments; hopefully, you have not made them yourself.

"No one, least of all a donor, is going to tell me how to run my organization!"

"I founded this organization and I will shut it down before I give up control!"

These statements do not emanate from mature organizations. They almost always are found among small and midsize groups.

I used to think such expressions were born from desperation and the poverty mentality that grips many in the smaller arts world. Now, I see them as ignorant and arrogant. Or just plain stupid. They hurt all of us.

Any artist who wishes to exercise total control with no accountability is free to operate as a sole proprietor or as a for-profit business. However, once one crosses over and assumes the mantle of an incorporated, 501(c)(3), your business becomes the public's business. And the public relies upon your board of directors to look after its interests.

We might whine, curse, and complain if we must. Then we need to grow up and step up to the plate of adult nonprofit governance.

The Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence, created by -- and available for pdf download from -- the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, articulate 10 principles of accountability and 133 management practices that can inform artists, administrators, board members, and wanna-bees.

For sure, as the Principles state, "Board members should be committed to the mission and dedicated to the success of the nonprofit." However, "Nonprofit board members are responsible to make decisions in the interest of the organization and no other party, including themselves."

The Center for Nonprofit Management at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis offers regular classes in all aspects of nonprofit management and governance. One need not be a regularly-enrolled student to attend. I have found several classes helpful over the years.

Yes, there is a lot of nuance about the checks and balances of governing and managing nonprofits; that is grist for future posts.

The basics remain relevant. If we care enough to do our work in the arts, then we should care enough to get it right in practice and in attitude.

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